In 2011, Tunisia set an inspiring model for the so called Arab Spring, sparking popular revolts in several Arab countries against autocratic leaders who had clung to power for decades. The mantra was that if the Tunisian people were able to oust the country’s strongman, Zein Al-Abidin Bin Ali, why couldn’t other people likewise put an end to years and years of single man’s rule under which corruption, violation of basic human rights and poverty were rife?
While Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis demanded bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity, the experience of the later years has proved that ending a single man’s rule was not the only obstacle needed to achieve those goals. Demanding free elections disregarded the sad reality that the lack of democracy and rotation of power for decades had only benefited political Islamic groups, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who had their own goals and aims, totally separate from those of the Arab street during the popular revolts.
The Brotherhood’s illusion of creating a so called Islamic state, if not a caliphate that would spread all across countries where a Muslim majority exists, its abuse of religion and false portrayal of itself as the only true representatives of Islam, drove nearly all Arab countries that had aspired to a fresh start to chaos, civil war, sectarian strife and sharp deterioration in living conditions.
This was the lesson Egyptians learned the hard way after the removal of the late president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February, 2011, and a bitter year under the rule of late Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. On 30 June 2013, it was Egypt’s turn to become the inspiring model for other Arab countries, showing how the failed policies of the Muslim Brotherhood could lead to civil war. When millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand the removal of the Brotherhood president, this quickly sent shockwaves to other Arab countries, including Tunisia.
Tunis was going through hard times in early 2013 because of the same Brotherhood policy of seeking to dominate the political scene after winning elections, in defiance of the basic principles of democratic rule. Under Brotherhood rule in both Egypt and Tunisia, the two countries all but turned into safe havens for terrorist groups and figures. Assassins and convicted terrorists were glorified and dubbed martyrs. When secular, human rights defenders and members of parliament in Tunis protested the Brotherhood’s extremist policies that divided the country, they were simply shot dead. Then the Islamists in Tunisia hardly managed to avoid a fate similar to that of their brethren in Egypt, after retreating and allowing new presidential and parliamentary elections to take place. Yet that change of heart was not genuine, but only a tactical truce before trying again to take over and rule alone.
It would not normally seem right for Tunisian President Kais Saied to suspend an elected parliament, fire a prime minister and take over all executive powers. However, as was the case in Egypt in June 2013, the alternative would have been total chaos and further deterioration in the lives of the Tunisian people.
Only days before Saied announced his decisions, thousands of Tunisians were already on the streets protesting the rising numbers of deaths due to Covid-19 amid a state of negligence by government officials. The Tunisian branch of the Brotherhood, Ennahda Party led by Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, had abused their share in the parliament to stall taking any decisions that would help improve the lives of Tunisians. The message by Ghannouchi’s party was that you either let us rule the country alone in our own way, or we mess things up. President Saied, who was also directly elected by a popular vote and enjoys the trust of many Tunisians who see him as an outsider to the political class and man known for his integrity, had to interfere to save his country.
What is required of Tunisia’s neighbours and concerned observers across the world is to support the Tunisian people and help them restore stability and economic prosperity. Only two days after Saied’s decisions, life went back to near normal in most Tunisian cities, implying that the majority support those moves and were fed up with the stalling role performed by Ennahda and its supporters. The message by the majority of Tunisians was “Enough is enough” – of divisive policies using religion as a cover.
And that is why world reactions to the changes in Tunisia did not rush into the classic statements of rejecting what the Brotherhood has reflexively dubbed as a “coup,” and reflected understanding of the complicated situation. The attitude is “Wait and see”, with many expecting President Saied would to keep his promise to restore an elected parliament after drafting a new constitution and restoring stability. Meanwhile, if the Brotherhood in Tunisia lost their minds and decided to resort to violence as they did in Egypt, they would be digging their own grave once and for all – not just in Tunisia, but all over the Arab region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.